Article III, Section 1:
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
Originally, the right to a jury trial was not available in criminal contempt cases. 1 But the Court held in Cheff v. Schnackenberg, 2 that a defendant is entitled to trial by jury when the punishment in a criminal contempt case in federal court is more than the sentence for a petty offense, traditionally six months. Although the ruling was made pursuant to the Supreme Court's supervisory powers and was thus inapplicable to state courts and presumably subject to legislative revision, two years later the Court held that the Constitution also requires jury trials in criminal contempt cases in which the offense was more than a petty one. 3 Whether an offense is petty or not is determined by the maximum sentence authorized by the legislature or, in the absence of a statute, by the sentence actually imposed. Again the Court drew the line between petty offenses and more serious ones at six months' imprisonment. Although this case involved an indirect criminal contempt (willful petitioning to admit to probate a will known to be falsely prepared) the majority in dictum indicated that even in cases of direct contempt a jury will be required in appropriate instances.
When a serious contempt is at issue, considerations of efficiency must give way to the more fundamental interest of ensuring the even-handed exercise of judicial power. 4 Presumably, there is no equivalent right to a jury trial in civil contempt cases, 5 although one could spend much more time in jail pursuant to a judgment of civil contempt than one could for most criminal contempts. 6 The Court has, however, expanded the right to jury trials in federal civil cases on nonconstitutional grounds. 7